Do you have special memories around food? For some, even a quiet moment sipping a cup of coffee and enjoying a light breakfast can be meaningful – a time to reflect, plan, and just take a breath. What about those with dementia – especially if their condition has progressed to the point of residing in an assisted living facility? Mealtimes in such environments can proactively help memory care patients connect with others, nourish their spirit and bodies and give them a moment of calm and reflection.
Dining plays a significant role in the quality of life and wellbeing of memory care patients. A structured dining routine, with consistent timing and familiar surroundings, can help reduce confusion and provide a sense of calm, improving the residents’ overall experience in senior living communities.
Alzheimer’s is currently ranked as the seventh leading cause of death in the U.S. and is the most common cause of dementia among older adults. Symptoms can include the loss of cognitive functioning — thinking, remembering, and reasoning — and behavioral abilities to such an extent that it interferes with a person’s daily life and activities.
For some, memory loss can progress to the point where some residents no longer recognize when it is time for a meal or that they may be hungry. Additionally, memory care patients may experience confusion, agitation, or anxiety during mealtimes due to their memory loss. With any number of these symptoms combined, proper nutrition may be at risk, which is why dining plays a crucial role. Proper nutrition is essential for maintaining cognitive function and overall health, particularly for memory care patients who often struggle with eating independently.
Dining programs in memory care facilities are specifically designed to provide balanced and nutritious meals that meet the unique dietary needs of these patients. A well-balanced diet can help improve energy levels, brain health, and support overall memory function. A structured dining routine, with consistent timing and familiar surroundings, can help reduce negative emotions and provide a sense of security.
Overarching goals for a memory care dining program should focus on the following:
CCL Hospitality Group’s specialized dining programs for memory care patients address the individual resident’s preferences, as well as all three of these critical focus areas.
Menu design should focus on residents’ proper nourishment, variety, culinary aromas, and nourishing between-meal-snacks and beverages. Talking with residents and their friends and families to learn about special dishes the resident once prepared or enjoyed enables chefs in our communities to build lasting connections with residents and is a great way to find new ways to invigorate menu options. A family recipe submission is a wonderful activity for families to be able to participate in, while honoring their loved ones.
Additionally, culinary aromas signal to residents that a meal is approaching. Mealtimes for memory care patients should also be a well-balanced stimulating sensory experience. The dining experience can engage multiple senses, which is beneficial for memory care patients. Pleasant aromas, appealing visual presentation of food, and varied textures can stimulate their senses and increase their engagement and interest in eating.
Certain aromas have the ability to evoke strong emotions and memories. Smells associated with loved ones, childhood or significant life events can bring back corresponding emotions and memories. Scientists have proven that smells are handled by the olfactory system, the structure in the front of the brain that sends information to the other areas of the body’s central command for further processing. Odors take a direct route to the limbic system, including the amygdala and the hippocampus, the regions related to emotion and memory. When memory care patients inhale specific aromas, it can activate the neural pathways associated with memory retrieval.
Another way to stimulate appetite for memory care patients can be participating in Undine’s Teaching Kitchens events, which can help evoke memories of family life, while providing patients with a sense of purpose. One community hosted a bread making event where the group prepared bread dough along with an assortment of toppings. While the participation and engagement add meaningful value to a memory care patient’s day, it often provokes spontaneous story sharing from their past, when they made bread with their families or baked cookies for their grandchildren.
Unidine’s signature MemoryFare program incorporates culinary aromas through weekly chef cooking demonstrations, baking in the neighborhood kitchens, and crockpots filled with aromatic ingredients of freshly cut citrus and cinnamon sticks. Additionally, participating in meal planning, food preparation, or setting the table can provide them with a sense of purpose and accomplishment.
Distractions including noise and visual cues may be overstimulating to those with dementia and result in difficulty engaging and connecting with a resident. They may even become agitated and restless and thus unable to participate in daily activities – including meals. A top priority is ensuring the living environment is calm and serene to support the overall well-being of the resident.
Beyond the environment, one of Unidine’s dining initiatives, Breakfast Upon Rising, which is simply that – providing breakfast when the resident naturally awakes – accounts for individuals internal waking time, thus allowing them to get a full night’s rest and enjoy breakfast during expanded breakfast hours. This program also incorporates display plates in place of traditional written menus to simplify the ordering process for the patient, reducing stress, providing dignity and a calm start to each day.
Selection of dinnerware and other dining-related items such as clothing protectors should be taken into account, not only for functionality purposes, but appearance as well. Keep it simple when choosing plate-ware by avoiding patterns and select solid, bright colors such as blue or red. The bright color helps draw the resident’s focus to the plate and creates contrast on the table setting. Even more critical to the table appearance – is staff engagement.
Mandatory training programs should include dementia training educating staff about the disease, progression, and how best to interact with residents. One aspect of our MemoryFare program, Companion Dining, supports staff dining with residents. As opposed to traditional models where staff walk around to encourage and cue, the staff member is on the same level as the resident, consumes a small item such as a bowl of soup, and cues and encourages intake while also promoting socialization. This one-on-one support has been shown to increase oral consumption and improve self-feeding. Families are also encouraged to dine with their loved ones for the same positive impact.
Simple changes in processes along with staff training can make a positive impact related to resident enjoyment of meals and level of nourishment. Three meals and snacks are a significant part of the residents’ day and with thoughtful planning can result in a “good day” for everyone.Jenny Overly
Sr. Director | Nutrition, Health & Wellness
CCL Hospitality Group
Memory care patients often experience a decline in independence due to their cognitive impairments. Dining programs that encourage independence, such as offering choices and adaptive utensils, can help patients maintain their sense of autonomy, which boosts self-esteem and maintains a patient’s dignity. Dining also provides an opportunity for patients to engage in social interactions, both with fellow residents and staff. Eating meals together encourages conversation and companionship, fostering a sense of community and reducing isolation. Socialization has been shown to have a positive impact on memory function and emotional well-being.
Dining plays a critical role in the lives of memory care patients by improving nutrition, stimulating sensory experiences, promoting social interaction, maintaining a sense of autonomy, boosting independence, and minimizing mealtime confusion. A well-designed and supportive dining program is essential in providing the best possible care and enhancing the overall well-being of memory care residents.